‘I Wonder’ Questions: Harnessing the Power of Inquiry
Students are constantly asking inquiries. When does the homework have to be completed? What makes you think Siri understands what I’m saying? What causes the sky to be blue? Student inquiries can be amusing, informative, and, at times, completely off the beaten path. The instructors at Crellin Elementary record students’ “I wonder” questions rather than responding to them one by one when they arise. This allows them to view the questions as a whole and use the information to build lessons and projects that will encourage students’ natural curiosity.
WHAT ARE ‘I WONDER’S?
‘I’m curious’ is the categorical term that Crellin Elementary teachers use to characterize the different inquiries that pupils have about their learning. In the middle of a lesson, the professors encourage their students to express their curiosity aloud.
Dana McCauley, the principal of Crellin Elementary School, explains how the process works: The moment when you are engrossed in a class and the students are beginning to make those connections and they begin to speak them out loud: ‘How are magnets related to electricity?’ What is the significance of this in this unit? ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying.’ “Why is it that whenever we go to the stream, I notice that green algae-looking stuff on there, when I thought you said you cleaned it up?” you might wonder. Alternatively, ‘I’m curious as to why the salt is melting the ice out there?’ “I mean, why are we putting that out there?”
“I wonder” questions are anything that the children are curious about—whatever connections are forming in their minds as they learn, they are expressing these thoughts aloud through “I wonder” queries.
ENCOURAGING AND HARVESTING STUDENT WONDERS
Teachers at Crellin use a variety of approaches for documenting kids’ “I wonder” queries and observations. Some teachers have them write their questions before assignments during writing prompts, while others just write the questions on the board, and yet others may use posters or sticky notes to remind them of their questions.
When someone says anything that isn’t relevant to what you’re doing at the moment, McCauley says, “you write it down and tell them they may come back later.'” “Write it down on a Post-it note.”
With a cover sticker that says, I wonder… “The key thing is to never stop wondering” —Albert Einstein, and then a line for the student’s name, Hannah has a colorful, glittery journal to keep track of her thoughts.
Image courtesy of Edutopia
TIP: Encourage students to write down their questions in “I wonder” diaries, and then utilize these questions to help you prepare future classes for your pupils.
The use of “I wonder” journals by fifth-grade students began after a regular learning partner, Dr. Dave Miller, recognized that the students had far more questions than he could answer in the limited time he had to spend in the classroom. He handed out notebooks to each kid and instructed them to jot down any questions they might have regarding anything. He is now using the journals to plan experiments for the children that he will be conducting during his time in the classroom.
In any case, students are always encouraged to question, ponder, and share their observations with their teacher and fellow students, regardless of the technique of data gathering.
CHANNELING THE WONDER
Every few weeks, teachers go over all of the questions that have been collected but never answered since they were either off-topic during the lesson or better appropriate for a subsequent unit in the curriculum. When teachers take a look at a group of students’ queries, they can glean information about where the students desire to go as well as where they have just gone.
“They can serve as a clue to the teacher to ensure that no misconceptions are developed,” McCauley explains. “You have to make sure that everything is flowing and that everything makes sense to them… Is it possible that they have a misunderstanding of the situation? Maybe they’re connecting on a level you didn’t even realize they were connecting on until now. As a result, it provides an opportunity for us to reflect on… how we’re setting out teachings.”
I wonder questions can also help teachers identify themes and topic areas about which kids are particularly interested, as was the case when fifth-grade teacher Brittany German found that she was receiving a disproportionate number of “I wonder” queries concerning outer space. She then opted to make use of some of the available space in her next apartment.
As teachers work their way through the “I wonder” questions, they ask themselves questions such as those listed below:
What direction could I take this?
What can I do to connect some of these ideas?
What can I do to make this relevant to my students’ lives?
What am I supposed to take out from this?
In addition, while “I wonder” inquiries can undoubtedly have an impact on lesson plans, teachers may also employ them in smaller, more personalized groups.
“They aren’t always full-blown lesson plans,” McCauley admits. “Sometimes they are.” “Sometimes it’s a project that only one child is interested in. Some of the time, it’s more of a question that they need to look into further. Other times, it becomes a completely new project for the class or a group of children.”
LEAVING SOME QUESTIONS UNANSWERED
The following questions are written in a notebook entry labeled “Space”: 1) How does one go about creating a black hole? 2) Why did those scientists create a black hole? Wouldn’t something bad happen to someone or would someone get wounded if they didn’t do so? 3) What would happen if a planet collided with the Earth one day?
It is common for students to have dozens or hundreds of questions, and for some, the prospect of having to answer them all might be intimidating. Teachers at Crellin, on the other hand, remark that they do not feel required to answer every question that is posed. This group’s goal is to contribute what they can, encourage students to take responsibility for the situation and seek answers on their own; and most importantly, they want students to keep asking questions. Principal McCauley feels that the ultimate goal is for students to continue to wonder: “If people don’t ask themselves, ‘How will we ever survive on the moon?’ then that will never be explored.” Your goal is to pique their interest enough so that they will continue to inquire, with the understanding that not all questions will be answered. But that doesn’t mean students should stop wondering, because wondering leads to thinking outside the box, and thinking outside the box leads to critical thinking, which makes them critical thinkers. This is the point at which everything comes together for them as they try to figure it out and reflect on what they’re doing. That’s where all of the learning takes place—where that’s all of the connections begin to be formed.”